Zac Efron in The Beach Bum
Harmony Korine’s The Beach Bum has its major flaws, but one great thing about the film is that each character Matthew McConaughey’s Moondog meets is absorbingly bizarre enough to inhabit a movie of their own. His wife, Minnie (Isla Fisher), already seems like a middle-finger-wagging bank robber fresh from a root-for-the-bad-guys heist film, and his friend, Captain Wack (Martin Lawrence), will probably end up discovering the Loch Ness monster’s cute baby cousin in some children’s adventure movie.
But the most nuanced and disturbing of these characters is Zac Efron’s Flicker, whose seven minutes of screen time are crucial to the film’s evil energy. Moondog first spots him while saying the addict’s prayer—in a circle, holding hands—at rehab. Frosted tips glowing in the sun and razor-precise rows of facial hair channeling the ripped Guy Fieri of your nightmares, Flicker puffs a giant vape cloud from the spiral of his mouth. It’s not long before we see him donning JNCO jeans, preaching Jesus and, in the film’s most memorable scene, introducing Moondog to the wonders of Scott Stapp and Creed. “I’m a tiger, bro,” he attests. His predatory impulses reveal themselves in startling fashion when he smashes a bottle over the head of a wheelchair-bound elderly person and steals his money.
Efron plays the character like an authentic trash humper, a middle-American pyromaniac preacher embracing sin because Christ already died for that shit anyways. This involves maniacally flipping his frat boy energy from Neighbors into something more strung out and volatile. You might think for a minute that his strapping body is out of place in the exhausting Florida heat, but the relaxed muscularity of his performance intimates a lost soul whose instincts tell him to rip the world to shreds. Tiger indeed. – Jeff Heinzl
Lupita Nyong’o in Us
Us is a stunning work of horror and social satire where everyone in America has a twin that dwells in the unused and unmapped tunnels and caverns beneath the United States. With his second film, Jordan Peele offers another poignant critique on race and class, but the success of the movie lies in Lupita Nyong’o’s dual performances as Adelaide Wilson, a seemingly normal wife and mother trying to protect her family, and Red, Adelaide’s doppelgänger and leader of the Tethered.
Nyong’o establishes both women as physical and emotional opposites. Adelaide carries the self-consciousness of a lifetime of therapy in her shoulders, slumping slightly. She holds herself at a distance, even from her family, and confesses to a lifelong sense of dread since her first encounter with Red when they were children. Red is all confidence and precision. Her back is always straight, eyes rarely blinking, and she moves with a dangerous grace. She is both monster and revolutionary in a movie where things aren’t always what they seem. But, Red’s most haunting quality is the scabrous voice with which she speaks. Nyong’o’s hoarse vocalization is the fuel of nightmares, making Red the greatest presence in a horror movie since Hannibal Lecter.
Horror and comedy performances rarely receive their due in award season gold. Hopefully, that changes this year and this performance get the historic reverence it deserves. – Don Kelly
August Diehl in A Hidden Life
As performances go, there’s no comparison to Renée Maria Falconetti’s in Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc, a singular instance of unvarnished emotion presented as an act of agonizing communion with the ineffable. Filmed 90 years later, in a mode that’s thematically if not formally linked to Dreyer’s legendary experiment with durational extremity, Malick’s A Hidden Life reaches a similar level of artistry. The entire effort is anchored by August Diehl’s beatific turn as the tragic pacifist Franz Jägerstätter. While operating in a far more naturalistic tenor than Falconetti’s famous effort, Diehl manages to portray an obstinate, straight-faced absorption of undue suffering that communicates fear, doubt and sorrow, without losing the character’s purposeful dedication to the sacred choice he’s made.
The passion in this case is one almost lost forever to history, that of a simple farmer who has the misfortune to live in Alpine Austria at the brink of the second world war. Refusing to swear fealty to Hitler, Franz experiences his own personal calvary, first ostracized, then imprisoned, then sentenced to death by beheading. Throughout all this, he retains a means of escape, the signing of a pointless pledge that many in his position have consented to without agreeing with. Yet his dedication to principle, both religious and personal, is staunch enough to not allow such a lapse. Malick’s characteristically pastoral style grants an abundant sense of what’s to be lost by this decision, the Edenic sprawl of the family’s homestead, positioned significantly between a towering peak and a church steeple, filled out by the joyful presence of his small family. It takes a masterful performance to sell the decision to depart from all this—leaving behind a widow, orphans and land that can no longer be taken care of—as an act of immaculate rectitude and not one of folly. Possessed by a cold, intense fire behind his sunken eyes, Diehl totally sells it, expressing the innate reality of Franz’s difficult decision without grand speeches or any gesture toward unearned catharsis. What results is a portrayal of unerring moral fixity seemingly squelched by the forces of cruelty and evil, yet still persisting, its depiction serving as a reminder of the heights of personal purity we all may be capable of reaching. – Jesse Cataldo
Al Pacino in The Irishman
To pick the finest performance among the three central actors of The Irishman is an impossible task. Each embodies a different manifestation of male ego: Russell (Joe Pesci) reflects the quiet arrogance of a man used to life as a series of transactional encounters in which everyone defers to him, to the extent that he is nearly paralyzed with embarrassment when a small girl refuses to humor his glad-handing charm. Frank (Robert De Niro) conveys the pure self-denial of a man so supplicant to his betters that he offloads all responsibility for his actions and drifts through life without a moment’s introspection. But it is Al Pacino’s Jimmy Hoffa who captures the operatic tenor of pure, raging narcissism. Martin Scorsese’s film is brutally somber, but also every bit as funny as his other crime films, and never more so than when Pacino is on screen. Modulating the overacting that has plagued his work for decades, Pacino employs it sporadically like the sudden swells of Haydn’s Surprise Symphony. At other times, he is a cajoler and a huckster, albeit in such a way that you cannot help but like him in spite of his overt mob connections and his endless power trips. There is so much of the old Al to Hoffa, the ability to communicate an unfathomable contempt to a rival with nothing more than the hard set of a facial expression, or the affable charm of his softer-spoken flattery. He makes Hoffa as oafish as he does tragic, and as he increasingly hardens the character against all reasonability, one can feel only remorse for the doom everyone but him can see. – Jake Cole
Adam Driver in Marriage Story
Most of the online discussion of Adam Driver’s acting in Noah Baumbach’s incredible Marriage Story has centered on a crucial, tears-strewn shouting match he has with Scarlett Johansson’s Nicole that ends with Driver’s Charlie punching a hole in the wall. That this scene has been a magnet for attention is not a surprise: it is the biggest, loudest scene in the film. Also unsurprising is that popular views of this scene are polarized, with Driver’s champions considering it a tour de force that should cement his Oscar campaign and his detractors claiming that shouting and punching walls is primary-school-level acting stuff (though why such a judgment should matter to the superficial tastes of Oscar’s Best Actor voters is something these folks never explain).
Here’s the thing, though: throw that scene out of Marriage Story and Adam Driver’s performance remains the year’s best. Charlie is a man going through the worst experience of his life—a divorce plus the estrangement of his son to the other coast, 3000 miles away—while still trying to perform at a demanding job. The audience believes it, as Driver’s posture and tone of voice point to a man who cannot enjoy his MacArthur Grant, a man ambushed by the vitriol suddenly injected into his divorce and a man who was a good father and is now more or less childless. Those unimpressed by his crying and yelling in “that” scene should, by their own professed standards, find Driver’s slumped shoulders and sleep-deprived gazes in the rest of Marriage Story all the more impressive. – Ryne Clos
Kristen Stewart in Charlie’s Angels
Since she broke out of Twilight purgatory, Kristen Stewart has graduated from YA franchises to become an arthouse darling in films by Olivier Assayas and Kelly Reichardt. The awkwardness she conveyed as a lovestruck teen forced to choose between a werewolf and a vampire has matured into an off-kilter disaffectedness that’s perfect for depicting a generational malaise. But in Elizabeth Banks’ ‘70s TV reboot, KStew did something even more remarkable: she took the potentially disposable role of Sabina, the action movie’s token weirdo, and made it fascinating. If you haven’t seen it (who did?), you won’t believe that she makes something fresh reading a throwaway line like, “Mo’ money, mo’ problems.” It’s the kind of line that would come off as smug from anybody else, but she knows that the key to camp is to underplay it. Stewart’s way of careening off emotions indirectly has worked so well for her dramatic showcases in Personal Shopper and Certain Women that it should be no surprise it works for deadpan comedy. She’s hilarious, all the better because she’s not trying to be funny. I’d love to see her direct; what kind of performances would she coax out of her own charges? – Pat Padua
The Ladies of Booksmart
Booksmart, Olivia Wilde’s slyly feminist update on the teen comedy, is packed to the gills with sensational performances from a combination of well-known and up-and-coming actresses. First among equals is Lady Bird scene-stealer Beanie Feldstein, whose outspoken Molly is Booksmart’s witty, self-conscious brain. Feldstein’s excellent timing, right down to the way she adjusts her posture, expertly conveys Molly’s vacillation between academic confidence and social uneasiness. Then there’s Kaitlyn Dever’s Amy, the film’s tender heart. The shy but boldly out-of-the-closet Amy balances the louder Molly perfectly, but it’s her tentative romancing of Ryan (Victoria Ruesga) and Hope (Diana Silvers) that show the full cycle—terror, lust, horror, joy—of teenage romance.
Lisa Kudrow pops up as Amy’s extremely accepting mother, infusing kindness and exasperation into her few scenes. And Jessica Williams is pitch perfect as Molly and Amy’s world-weary teacher Miss Fine, who makes some very funny, very questionable decisions.
The biggest surprise is Billie Lourd (daughter of the late, great Carrie Fisher), who steals all of her scenes as the ethereal Gigi, a classmate of Molly and Amy who magically appears at every party regardless of the restrictions of time and space. Lourd’s Gigi is a manic pixie dream girl re-imagined through Wilde’s female gaze, and the result is magic. Gigi is simultaneously an unknowable wild child and protectress of her fellow woman.
Wilde’s canny direction and an excellent screenplay (by Emily Halpern, Sarah Haskins, Susanna Fogel and Katie Silberman) create the perfect environment for bold, multifaceted female characters to play in. And all of Booksmart’s actresses make the absolute most out of it. – Mike McClelland
Florence Pugh in Midsommar
Much as Ari Aster put Toni Collette through the emotional and metaphysical wringer in last year’s Hereditary, the elevated-horror director sends Florence Pugh through a similar gauntlet in the mind-bending folk horror Midsommar. She’s more than up to the challenge. Like Collette’s Annie before her, Pugh’s Dani deals with the fallout of almost unfathomable tragedy before traversing down a road that leads to truly unfathomable horror. The 23-year-old English actress portrays a woman wracked with the trauma and grief that have sprung from her sister murdering their parents before killing herself. She then navigates her character’s perilous path back to some semblance of normalcy by maintaining the status quo in a dysfunctional relationship with a guy who clearly doesn’t have her best interests at heart.
Pugh runs the gamut of emotions when Dani accompanies her douchey boyfriend to a remote Swedish commune, where the quaint Hårga people gear up for a pageantry-filled summer festival. Though Dani’s sensory perception and emotional response is thrown all out of whack by the Hårga’s frequent use of hallucinogens, Pugh plays her character as a young woman who initially struggles to differentiate pity from love, but one who gains strength through her embrace of the unknown in search of a newfound sense of family. As the Hårga’s celebration turns twisted, and her fellow travelers begin disappearing, Dani is launched into ecstasy and transcendence by finding connection with the cult. Midsommar’s vivid take on unspeakable horror hiding in plain sight (and in a land of perpetual sunshine) is nothing short of inspired, but Pugh’s deft untangling of impossibly gnarled emotions is the most dazzling aspect of all. – Josh Goller
Brad Pitt in Ad Astra and Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood
Brad Pitt simply has one of those faces. As an actor, his profile is one that’s etched with classic handsomeness and nuanced expressive output, always hinting at details of deep feeling and communicating them despite these emotions never quite being on the surface. In James Gray’s Ad Astra, Pitt exhibits Shakespearian-level daddy issues and philosophical musings on our existential purpose with a magnificent muteness, all of which is translated to the viewer in an eloquently universal manner. It’s all held deep within, conveyed mostly within expository narration and dispatches, but the times when Gray chooses to zero in on Pitt’s face—especially when a single tear is involved—you can feel humanity being sparked to life in that very instant. It’s one of the finest performances of his career, and it’s only one of two he gave this year.
Pitt also has one of those bodies, and this isn’t just referring to the moment in Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood where Pitt’s stuntman Cliff Booth removes his Champion tee and open Hawaiian shirt while fixing a TV antenna on the roof. While that moment has its charms of attraction, it’s also Pitt’s physicality in a fight with Bruce Lee, or his acid-tripping discharge of delirious violence in the film’s final act. It’s the way he walks with purpose toward a house on Spahn Ranch, or he tosses tools at the hippie who slashes his tires. Hell, even the way he drives in the film is cooler than anything most of us will ever accomplish in our lives, and there’s no denying the unrelenting charisma that Pitt brings to the entire performance. He’s having fun with it, and as a result, so are we. – Greg Vellante
The Cast of Knives Out
The SAG award nominations were announced last week, and with that announcement came a miscarriage of justice. Somehow, the ensemble players of Rian Johnson’s deliriously entertaining Knives Out weren’t nominated for Outstanding Performance by a Cast in a Motion Picture. (Adding insult to injury, two of the five nominees who made the cut were the casts of Bombshell and Jojo Rabbit. OK, cool.) If you’ve seen this buoyant picture, where a mixture of “Schitt’s Creek” and “Arrested Development” family baggage collides with a Clue-style murder mystery, then you’ll understand what sort of travesty this is.
All hyperbole aside, I haven’t experienced such a stellar ensemble having so much fun since the Coen brothers’ woefully underrated—and excellent—Hollywood farce Hail, Caesar! was released back in 2016. Knives Out brims with a rogue’s gallery of top-notch, seasoned performers: Jamie Lee Curtis, Michael Shannon, Toni Collette, Don Johnson, Chris Evans, Christopher Plummer, Lakeith Stanfield, and on and on and on.
Two actors spin at the film’s center, binary heavenly bodies around which the rest of the cast revolves. First is Daniel Craig, our version of Hercule Poirot, the supreme detective who happily adopts a Foghorn Leghorn affect. The second is Ana de Armas, a relative newcomer, who injects the medicine of humanity and kindness into this morally queasy endeavor. The full cast of Knives Out understands the finale to this serpentine whodunit can’t be as satisfying as its premise. Which is why their performances carry us along, with graceful ease, to a conclusion that exceeds expectations even if you can see it coming from miles away. – Peter Tabakis
Shia LeBeouf in Honey Boy
In a recent Hollywood Reporter roundtable discussion, Shia LeBeouf admitted to lying to his father about Honey Boy, the thinly veiled autobiographical film he wrote in therapy about their relationship. When his dad wanted to know who was going to play him in the film, Shia told him Mel Gibson, his father’s favorite actor, was attached to the project. While Gibson, a real-life piece of shit who remains nonetheless preternaturally gifted on screen, could have been entertaining in the role, only Shia could have truly brought it to life.
As James Lort, the barely fictional stand-in for Jeffrey Craig LeBeouf, Shia takes every ounce of potential he’s shown throughout his inconsistent career and concentrates that energy into a layered portrait of the most controversial figure in his own life. Other movie stars have played their own fathers on screen. Mario Van Peebles’ charming turn as father Melvin in Baadasssss! comes to mind. But where that turn was for the most part mythological in nature, here Shia’s exasperated showbiz deadbeat comes to life as a thorny, frustrating but no less lovable figure.
He doesn’t shy away from depicting the casual malice and alcoholic rage his old man had in spades, but he tempers it by capturing his father’s charisma, by contrasting his foibles with the tragedy of his reality. James Lort is a man who could have been so many things, but instead, he’s wound up babysitting his child-actor son for money, living out of a motel and trying like hell to stay sober. In performing the empathetic work of understanding this character, we can watch LeBeouf forgiving and coming to terms with his childhood in something like real time. In a year with a murderer’s row of exemplary supporting performances, LeBeouf stands shoulder to shoulder with giants. – Dominic Griffin